What is the scholar-practitioner from your perspective?
From my perspective a scholar-practitioner is someone who consciously integrates into his or her scholarship the insights culled from engaging in the practices prescribed by the tradition he or she researches, publishes about and teaches. For me the label ‘scholar-practitioner’ indicates the intentionality and clear awareness that there is a kind of understanding that comes only through practice and that you not only seek to grasp what that understanding is but then also transcribe it into your scholarship and teaching.
How does contemplative practice inform your scholarship?
I was initiated into Mantra Yoga at age 5 by a disciple of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and then received śaktipāta-dīkṣā from Swami Muktananda at age 10. I received the Black Hat Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist initiation from His Holiness the 16th Karmapa also at age 10 and then the Kala Chakra initiation from Kalu Rinpoche when I was 22. Later, during my Fulbright dissertation research, I was initiated into Nepalese Sarvāmnāya Tantric tradition in Nepal in 1997 at age 29. That same year I was formally initiated into the Benares tablā Gharānā (school) by Pandit Homnath Upadhyaya. In 2002, I was initiated into the Muriddiya Order of Sufism by Sheikh Abdoulaye Dieye in Philadelphia. After each of these initiations I committed to the practices I was prescribed for varying amounts of time and to varying degrees of intensity but in each case with the perspective that the practices were the means to obtaining the wisdom and understanding promised through the initiations themselves.
When I started my graduate studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1992, I was very much approaching my academic studies from the perspective that practice is fundamental to true understanding and that without actual commitment to the practice, you can’t fully comprehend the deepest teachings of the tradition.
However, the halls of academia challenged my presuppositions with a radically opposite perspective – namely, that someone who is committed to practice can’t possibly have the objective capacity to really be able to critically analyze, publish about and effectively teach those traditions to which he or she is aligned as a practitioner (or ‘devotee’). This counter perspective was a real challenge for me to grasp. At that point in my life, as a young, 23-year-old launching his graduate studies, I had already had about 18 years of being an insider to the practices of yoga and Tantra. I thought of myself as a bit of a Tantric hot shot. What I had to realize was that insider-knowledge alone was not going to be enough for me to be a good scholar. Yes, my commitment to practice as an initiate would be a part of what informed my scholarship. But I also had to learn to step outside of myself, to achieve what the Greeks called epoché, or ‘bracketing out’ [of one’s biases and presuppositions] in order to acquire the kind of critical, objective interpretive abilities that are the sine qua non of the scholar.
How does your scholarly work influence or affect your contemplative practice?
So, it was the path of scholarship that trained me to be able to step outside of myself, to view my own experiences and beliefs as an object of knowledge and thereby to assess them and to place them alongside other systems of belief and practice and therefore to be able to evaluate my own worldview with at least some degree of objectivity. This was the key lesson I had to learn in order to become a scholar; and, in order to learn this lesson I had to recognize that I was in fact so deeply embedded in the traditions I sought to study academically that I was, in certain ways, actually blinded by my own devotional commitments.
And so the world of academia taught me the value of being objective, which was an invaluable complement to the lessons of subjective or first-person knowledge that I had acquired through my commitments to practice. I have come to see practice-based knowledge and objective-knowledge as complementing each other in a way analogous to the idea of balance expressed through the yin/yang symbol. Learning how to be objective has actually deepened my contemplative practice. Seeing myself from outside of myself, as it were, has given me a perspective that has not only enriched my scholarship but my contemplative practice. A very special and potentially dangerous kind of ego emerges in those who become too self-enclosed and who can’t see themselves as but one more self in a world of innumerable selves. We have to see ourselves within the greater framework of the whole and not fall into the mistake of thinking we are the center of the universe. Entering into graduate school I had a lot of arrogance as a result of my own sense of how much I had attained through my spiritual practice. My graduate studies humbled me by opening my eyes to an entirely different way of seeing things, a way of seeing things that did not replace my practice-centered understandings but rather enriched them, significantly so.
This epistemic shift gave me a much needed, deeper understanding of what mind and consciousness are in relationship to the ‘objective world’, and it also catapulted me into a very healthy crisis of faith that, while difficult at the time, was ultimately very positive in that I found myself coming into a more grounded and humbled sense of self and purpose. It was a several-month period of existential crisis that ultimately deepened my commitment to practice by enabling me to view my practice-based understandings from an objective perspective.
As a scholar-practitioner, what is your biggest obstacle in navigating this intersection?
I think my most significant obstacle was recognizing that I was biased, that to some level, I was basically dogmatic in my own personal views, which at that point were very much informed by the fact that I was an insider to several Hindu and Buddhist Tantric traditions. To that point I had some vague, uninformed awareness that people could be blinded by their respective faith orientations, but I had naively assumed that such a person couldn’t possibly be me. I, of course, “knew the truth” and that sort of thing. The reality was that I had epistemic blinders on and didn’t realize that I was not yet able to see outside of the cognitive box that I had framed myself within based on the dogmatic assertions I had acquired as a result of my practice-based experience and faith commitments.
So, there I was studying Sanskrit and interpreting an array of texts on yoga and Tantra under the direction of the late, great Gerald James Larson, who at that time in the early and mid-90s was the director of Sanskrit and Indological studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Dr. Larson was an extraordinary teacher with no small amount of experiential insight regarding contemplative practice. And I think he had a keen sense for identifying ego and naivete in young, aspiring scholars like myself. At that time, having graduated summa cum laude from the program in religious studies at the University of Colorado and having spent a number of years in meditation practice, I was really very proud of my understanding. I didn’t realize how many fundamental lessons I still had to learn. And I found out the hard way that I needed to wake up a fair bit.
It was the spring of 1994 and there was a small group of graduate students reading Abhinavagupta’s Paramārthasāra under Gerald Larson. Each of us was asked to give a research presentation related to Trika Kaula Śaivism. I elected to do a presentation on the place of kundalini awakening within the Trika Kaula system. I put together this fairly grandiose systematic overview on how Kundalini Yoga works in relationship to certain esoteric rituals and how these ritual practices awaken the cakras and how it all leads to the elevation of kuṇḍalinī-śakti and the purification and empowering of consciousness. My ideas were really coming from a lot of different places including talks, readings, and experiences that I had encountered in the context of my years of meditation practice. It was, I think, all fairly well pieced together, but it really wasn’t genuinely scholarly; and it wasn’t nearly as grounded in original Sanskrit sources as it needed to be. In a sense, it was really just lazy, faith-based conjecture more than the kind of deeply grounded, well-thought-out scholarship that is demanded by a top flight scholar like Larson.
And, man, did he really call me out. Moreover, he did so in front of the class, exposing my arrogance and intellectual shortcomings before those other graduate students I had hoped to impress with my lecture. In front of the class Larson flat out told me I needed to go back to square one and to get my Sanskrit in order and read this and that text. Further, he called into question all my faith-based presuppositions and challenged me to learn to see the tradition anew with fresh, critical eyes. Having the ego I did, at first I was really offended. It took me days to get over my wounded pride to the point where I could actually even begin to reflect on the wisdom he had intended to impart to me that day. Eventually, I started an intensive process of really questioning the things I knew and understood and in that way, for the first time, I began to see myself from an objective perspective as a devotee who, in certain ways, was blinded by his own devotion. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing inherently wrong with devotion. It’s just that devotion needs to be balanced with wisdom, and one aspect of wisdom is being able to make one’s own presuppositions an object of study and critical reflection. To put one’s own worldview under the lens of introspection and to recognize the origins – and therefore, perhaps, even fallacies – of one’s own worldview, is, as Larson showed me, the fundamental process any true scholar must put himself through.
I liken the process Dr. Larson pushed me into as something akin to the idea at the core of Patañjali’s classical yoga. Namely, the idea of being able to perceive the constituent parts of your being clearly and recognizing exactly what it is that you are and what it is that you are not. We are all complex mind-body entities, and each of us carries around a great deal of conditioning, of impressions (saṃskāras, as Patañjali calls them) that form and inform us in very subtle, deeply rooted and powerful ways. Until we are really aware of our own conditioning then we can very easily find ourselves walking around unconsciously spouting truths and beliefs that may, in fact, not be accurately grounded in reality.
After this critique and awakening from Dr. Larson I went through several months of deep, and at times painful, introspection. For a while I found myself angrily disavowing myself of my earlier beliefs and connections to the lineages into which I had been initiated. At one point I even hit a kind of rock bottom existential place of a lonely emptiness in which I decided I didn’t believe in anything. But as I pushed onward into this introspective process I eventually came out the other side and found myself reclaiming my earlier beliefs and practices, but in a way that was now enriched by the fact that I had called everything into question, had examined every part of myself and had learned how to view even my own beliefs through an objective lens. At that point I recognized that while I couldn’t just rely on my own meditative experiences as the basis for my scholarly insights and writings, I also didn’t need to discard those insights. It was a bit of an “aha! moment” in which I recognized a middle way path that combines the subjective insights of practice together with the objective insights of critical scholarship.
And I realized that I had really needed this lesson in humility that Dr. Larson had given me. Although his words had been strong, cutting, and hard to hear, he had propelled me into an epistemological awakening without which I never would have been able to truly become a scholar. At that point, I came out of the cave of my existential crisis enough to crawl back to Dr. Larson and thank him for opening my eyes in such a profoundly valuable way. I told him that his criticism had enabled me to understand what it means to be a scholar as opposed to someone who is just spouting dogmatic assertions with the arrogance that says, “Hey, I took a spiritual intensive and so, of course, I know what I’m talking about.”
What forms of reasoning are necessary for the scholar-practitioner that are not for the “regular” scholar?
In my own assessment, the form of reasoning necessary for a scholar-practitioner is one that recognizes the nuanced nature practice-generated knowledge in a way that is akin to the ideas of Pierre Bordieu and Michel Foucault in terms of their respective notions of habitus and episteme. By this I mean that the scholar-practitioner understands that there is a type of knowing that comes only by means of engaging the whole body-mind complex in a set of practices [thereby forming habitus] through which your body-mind complex is itself encoded with an understanding that comes precisely from doing that practice [thereby shaping one’s episteme]. This at least is how I see the connection between Bourdieu’s idea of habitus and Foucault’s of episteme. Now, for both Bourdieu and Foucault, the point I believe is that when our bodies are encoded by means of practice, the understandings and assumptions thereby engendered often operate at an unconscious level. For example, by standing and singing the national anthem at a packed pre-COVID19 stadium event we impress ourselves with the sentiment of loyalty to our nation without even thinking about the fact that that is what we are doing. Through this and other similar types of rituals, Foucault and Bourdieu both argued, in their own ways, that the hegemonic structures of society are embedded into its citizenry, making individuals blindly docile.
But the encoding of our bodies doesn’t always have to be subconscious. Nor does immersion in practice/rituals have to make us subservient to hegemonic power structures. Practice can be engaged consciously with the awareness that the habit of practice is going to reveal to us a kind of knowing that is possible only by means of doing that practice (which is my own positive spin on Bourdieu’s idea of habitus). For example, we only really know what it’s like to swim in the ocean by means of swimming in the ocean. And we can’t really grasp what it feels like to dance or make love unless we dance and make love. Similarly, one doesn’t really understand Vinyasa Ashtanga Yoga unless one immerses one’s whole body in the practice, thereby encoding the body with the knowledge that comes from making that practice a habit. Moreover, one is probably going to have a better grasp of the Śākta Tantric manuals by immersing oneself in the prescribed rituals and thereby experiencing how the prescribed scented flowers, incense, savory food, fine wine, and erotic touch combined with music, chanting, and yogic techniques of mental and bodily control lead to a heightened cognitive state of synesthetic sensual delight.
So, from my perspective, the kind of reasoning that is most important as a scholar-practitioner is one that elevates the value of practice to the point that you view the doing of the practice as an actual imperative. Kant proclaimed the moral imperative. A scholar-practitioner proclaims the practice imperative. Practice is imperative precisely because there is a type of understanding that is only accessed by means of doing the practice.
However, it is also imperative that you be something more than just a practitioner. This is the lesson that Dr. Larson taught me. And this, in my opinion, is why I think there aren’t a whole lot of folks who are actually scholar-practitioners. In my experience, most practitioners don’t want to be deconstructed to the degree that you become the object of your own epistemological gaze long enough to actually view yourself as nothing more than just one more person in the vast sea of people all with their historically and culturally contingent ideas about themselves and their worlds. Once you reach this point, it’s very easy to just lose and walk away from your faith commitments. I did, for a while; but, then I began to see that while there is a value in seeing from afar that which you had been indoctrinated to see from only up close there is also a further value in journeying back in, so to speak, into the heart of practice and now engaging and learning from it by combining both the eyes of a passionately-engaged practitioner and critically objective scholar. Once you make the decision to dive back into your practice, if you are really going to be a scholar-practitioner and not just a practitioner, you then must acquire and hone the skills to interpret the subjectively-grounded, body-based knowledge into the language of legitimate scholarship. Given that body-based, experiential learning generates a kind of knowledge that is non-linguistic, there is inevitably this question of how to translate that type of knowledge into words. If a scholar-practitioner isn’t up to this challenge, then he or she ought to just stick to being a scholar or a practitioner, but not both in one.
Although it has at times been very challenging, I’ve enjoyed the process of navigating the balance between looking at the traditions I study both from within as an initiated practitioner and from without as a professional scholar. My own experience is that both my practice and my scholarship have been enriched through my conscious efforts to translate my practice-generated knowledge into the realm of my scholarship. I do believe it is possible and very important to be able to transfer and convey the kind of knowledge that comes from subjective, body learning into the objective realm of academic writing and teaching. And let’s face it – when it comes to the texts and traditions of yoga and Tantra, I think most of us would agree that it is difficult, if not impossible, to grasp the meaning absent practice because what’s being articulated in these texts and traditions, at least to some significant degree, is in fact a reference to those experiences and insights that come from doing the prescribed practices.